I am looking out the window at the frozen mud and dirty snow. A blue jay’s feathers ruffle in the cold wind. We are a week past the spring equinox but winter feels as solidly in place now as it did a month ago.
My chest spasms with the residual cough from a cold that knocked me flat for several days. It’s tough to work up the will to do much of anything beyond the essentials. Much less the ugly tedium of a task I loathe. I have a book to promote. I should be researching reviewers, pushing for readings and signings at bookstores and libraries. There are promotional opportunities out there that I ought to be pushing myself into. Advice is often confusing and contradictory (“You should never pay for reviews” as opposed to “There’s this fantastic service which doesn’t cost much and look at all these great reviews I’ve gotten!”). There are books and articles I ought to be reading on how to succeed. The thought makes me ill with debilitating lassitude.
So I crawl back into bed and hide.
I have published a book. It has been a reasonable success, considering it was put out by a small press that does very little to promote its authors, relying on the authors to do the promotion (see paragraph above). People have gone out of their way to say kind things about it. I should be pleased. Unfortunately I let myself indulge in this Capraesque dream that Archimedes Nesselrode would somehow become a phenomena through word of mouth, that sales would outstrip my wildest dreams and I’d be famous overnight. Dream big, reach for the stars, smack into reality and fall on your face.
But take heart — I have published a book which has enjoyed modest success. My publisher is looking over a second book, Awake Chimera, which I hope he will decide to pick up. A third book, Eloise and Avalon, is about to go out to beta readers for its first round of critiques. Waiting in a folder in my laptop are eleven other books, and rough drafts of half again more. Eloquent evidence of my lifelong preference for writing over the dull, crushing misery of publication and promotion.
Lying in bed, a cat curled up next to me, purring, I think about all the work I ought to be doing in order to compete with the ocean of other books and authors out there. Hundreds of thousands of books, their ranks swelled by the growing legions of the self-published, all clamoring for reader attention. The competition is unimaginably intense. I have a choice. I can spend my time doing things I loathe, dreading each day as I claw my way through the literary mosh pit, spending money I don’t have to do what other authors do to get that edge and make those connections.
Or I can settle for obscurity. Take walks with the dogs, deal with the daily chores, plan hiking trips in the White Mountains, watch the birds at the feeders. Let my mind focus on stories and ideas. Let myself slip into the mind of a character and conjure worlds far away from this one. Create the Capraesque realities where the hopes and struggles of worthy people blossom into marvelous triumphs, sometimes just on a tiny scale, but that makes them no less wonderful.
I’ve made that choice repeatedly over the years, but I always feel guilty about it, because ours is such a success-oriented society. We count our worth by fame and income. Admiration goes to those who struggle and sacrifice and push themselves, who are smarter than the rest, more ambitious, clever, competitive and full of drive (and, let’s face it, just plain lucky). We are admonished to Keep Trying and Never Give Up. There is no greater shame than to be a Failure. Not Good Enough. A Loser. It’s always your own fault if you are. You failed, you didn’t try hard enough, you didn’t make the most of your opportunities. You are nobody, nothing, just ordinary, run-of-the-mill, small potatoes. Unworthy.
What a dreadful, miserable way for a society to be! In order for there to be winners, there have to be losers. A lot of losers. All treated with contempt for not being a part of the winning elite. By glorifying this elite we automatically condemn the vast majority of humanity. But the system is rigged. We set up five chairs in a football stadium filled with people. Even if every single person in the stadium tries equally hard, there are still only going to be five people sitting in chairs when the music stops. Five blessed people who are granted society’s permission to feel good about themselves while all the rest are dismissed with a shrug, advised to try harder next time.
So once again I give myself permission to steal away into the worlds of my fiction. I may be a writer that nobody’s ever heard of outside my own small circle, but why shouldn’t that be good enough? I am surrounded by people nobody’s ever heard of either outside of their own small circles. Each one of us has a right to a sense of self-worth and dignity, because if we all didn’t do our small, ordinary, insignificant part, there would be no context for the famous. There would be no “everybody” to have heard of them.
In the utopian society I imagine in Eloise and Avalon, there are no celebrities, no VIPs, no positions of privilege. Do you repair the streets and the plumbing? You aren’t a nobody. You are the somebody that everyone depends on. If you are good at cooperating and helping others, you are considered a success. Competitiveness is considered a character flaw. Inferior cultures waste their resources in struggles to trump one another, impoverishing the masses to heap riches and glory on the few. Efficient, advanced societies freely share their skills, information, wealth and credit for effort. Leaders and those who excel in their chosen endeavors are respected for their abilities, but not at the cost of respect for the rest. Ordinary is not a pejorative term.
We all have the places we’d rather be: The garden, the kitchen, the mountains, the lake. Right now I’d rather be just about anywhere that isn’t below freezing with a chill wind. But I’ll settle for here, with my laptop and my cat (trying, inevitably, to lay across my keyboard) crafting words and imagining worlds. Maybe I ought to be doing something else, but to hell with it. When I’m dead I won’t give a damn how much fame I’ve achieved, or not. Right now I’m alive and it makes more sense to be happy than to allow myself to be forced into misery trying to measure up to some capricious societal definition of worth.
Instead of reading that essay on how to leverage social media to promote my work, I’m a million miles and tens of thousands of years away, in the Eden monastery, with Eloise as she teaches the Thalesian philosopher monks the Old Earth names for the flowers in their gardens.
And that, I think, is a pretty fine place to be. It is, after all, why I became a writer in the first place.